4 Steps to Make Complex Projects Easier to Deliver

4 Steps to Make Complex Projects Easier to Deliver


We’re still creating short-order cooks. They can make anything on a limited menu… but modern projects require Masterchefs – and as a profession we’re not geared up to develop them

These words, spoken five years ago by a leading light in the project management community, have stayed with me. At last things are beginning to change. We’ve a better handle on the missing ingredients in training project professionals.

Take a look at Project Leadership; skills, behaviours, knowledge and values, the APM’s recent report by Sarah Coleman and Professor Mike Bourne. It notes that the profession needs more project leaders to deliver the complex projects of the future, and it explores the difference between project management and project leadership.

The report may not use the Masterchef metaphor, but it recognises that many find it difficult to make the transition to project leader, not least because being a project leader means learning to operate in more unstable and volatile environments that demand fast judgement calls in ambiguous situations. Becoming a project leader requires you to let go of many of the activities which make you successful as a project manager.

A key aspect of this is learning to step back to work strategically on the project – looking to the future, setting direction and working outside the project with stakeholders, rather than working in the project – looking backwards at progress made and at the detail of what is going on inside the project organisation.


Projects as Social Systems


The APM is responding to the increased demand for project leaders with the release of the 7th edition of its Body of Knowledge. According to the authors, it will be emphasising that:

  • contemporary management through projects deals with an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world
  • emerging thinking is to understand projects as social systems.

Academic-sounding phrases like these can be hard to get your head around. Yet if you want to become a project leader it’s vital to know what they mean.

Dr Ruth Murray Webster, editor of the APM BoK 7 explains what’s behind the trend of seeing projects as social systems. “We’re seeing increasing numbers of projects where funding and/or delivery depends on large numbers of stakeholders, often based in different organisations. This gives rise to multiple, often hidden and moving agendas. What’s more small changes in the behaviour of one powerful stakeholder can have a large effect on the overall project.”

This ‘socio -political complexity’ is typically the most challenging aspect of a project leader’s work.


Most Project Issues Stem from Socio-political Complexity


Stephen Carver of Cranfield University reflects “I am constantly amazed at how much time, effort and money is thrown at the ‘structural’ issues (scope, pace size etc) and how little at the messy socio-political where the vast majority of project problems occur”.

This bias towards structural issues was confirmed when his colleagues asked around 250 project professionals about the focus of their training and certification. It turns out that only 10% of their development had focused on dealing with socio-political complexity.

Now it’s easy to question and criticize current provision. It’s far harder to provide an accessible way for people to understand how social -political complexity arises, how their actions contribute to it and how to go about reducing it.


Steps to Make Complex Projects Easier to Deliver


The most effective way I have found to fill this gap is to

  1. Draw on knowledge from the emerging disciplines of neuroscience, mindfulness and complexity
  2. Recognise that sometimes being a project leader is like trying to walk in thick fog. You may feel stuck, frustrated and unable to put a finger on what is going wrong or why. Yet you must keep walking – despite being unable to see a way forward
  3. See the fog as a friend rather than foe – speak about it and explore it with colleagues. Do they see it the same way? Maybe some of the things you find foggy are crystal clear for them, and vice versa.
  4. Resist the temptation to pretend it’s not foggy at all

I know, points 3 and 4 are counter-intuitive for many. They may even sound scary – acquiring new skills often is.

There’s no point in beating about the bush – it takes courage to become a Masterchef. But it is possible!


Related Resources


The book Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience – a short, powerful how-to guide for leaders who find themselves walking in fog.

Part One is a primer. It explores how the human brain works to build an understanding of why people behave as they do in organisations (the social dynamics). Part Two is a toolkit with a series of practical frameworks and suggestions. These help you apply knowledge from Part One and develop your capability to read and influence the behaviors and emotions of all stakeholders. Read what others say about it here


Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash